The distance between the Dodgers and the Angels could be gauged by a decision Dodgers manager Dave Roberts made in the eighth inning of the first game of the Freeway Series on Monday.
With the score tied, Roberts permitted reliever Joe Kelly to implode on the mound. There were myriad opportunities for the manager to intervene. Kelly issued three walks and lost two wild pitches. His command defined erratic. Yet Roberts stuck with Kelly for 31 stomach-turning pitches, watching the Angels capture the lead and eventually the victory.
Such are the luxuries of building a significant division lead in June.
A year after needing 163 games to win their sixth consecutive National League West crown, the Dodgers are enjoying the comforts of their current position. Roberts could afford to lose a random game because the possibility of revitalizing Kelly for the postseason carries such promise.
“We’re going to need him,” Roberts explained. “That’s just plain and simple.”
A two-game sweep by the Angels this week in Anaheim did little to alter the landscape of baseball in Southern California: The Dodgers play each day with an eye toward October. The Angels are just trying to stay relevant into September.
The two defeats left the Dodgers ... with the best record in the National League.
The two victories kept the Angels ... stuck in fourth place in the American League West.
Angels manager Brad Ausmus placed the games in their proper context on Tuesday evening. A pair of triumphs over the Dodgers could not erase the sting of losing recent series to division rivals Oakland and Seattle.
“It’s a good way to end the homestand, two wins against a very good ball club,” Ausmus said. “But I’m a big-picture guy, and the homestand overall wasn’t great.”
Ausmus suggested the Angels could gain some momentum as they head to Florida to play the Tampa Bay Rays, who entered Wednesday tied with the New York Yankees for the lead in the American League East. At 33-35, the Angels would welcome a winning streak. They have spent one day with a record above .500 in 2019.
It would be disingenuous to describe this Angels season as a surprise. The team won 80 games in 2018. They won 80 in 2017. Baseball Prospectus projected them to win 80 in 2019, and they are on pace for 79.
Angels general manager Billy Eppler has received little in return for the $34 million he spent in free agency this winter. Matt Harvey ($11 million) owns a 7.50 earned-run average and a spot on the injured list; Trevor Cahill ($9 million) is sidelined with a sore elbow; he has a 7.18 ERA. Cody Allen ($8.5 million) has a 4.84 ERA and lost his job as the closer to Hansel Robles. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy ($3.35 million) has been worth -0.8 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.
There are a few reasons for optimism. Mike Trout remains baseball’s best player. Shohei Ohtani has homered seven times in his first 30 games. Sidelined since March with turf toe, outfielder Justin Upton has begun playing in rehab games and could be activated on an upcoming three-city road trip. Demoted to the minors last month, first baseman Justin Bour returned on Tuesday and homered in his first at-bat.
For Angels fans who thirst for postseason baseball, these are meager offerings. The prospect of seeing Trout play in October appears dim. Thirteen games separate the Angels from the first-place Houston Astros. Four teams possess a better record in the hunt for the wild card.
In the National League, heading into Wednesday’s games, the Dodgers had seven more wins than any other team. It would also be disingenuous to classify this situation as a surprise. The Dodgers entered this season as a heavy favorite in the West, and have held that position, despite scant contributions from the offseason additions made by president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman.
Signed for $25 million, Kelly has produced a 7.59 ERA and left team officials puzzled about how to fix him. The team’s other free-agent signee, outfielder A.J. Pollock, hasn’t played since April because of a staph infection.
Yet the Dodgers have not been held back by the disappointment. The team has scored 105 more runs than it has allowed, the best in the National League. Only the Minnesota Twins have a better run differential.
At this point, the Dodgers spend their days gobbling up victories and preparing for the postseason, when they will try yet again to end their championship drought. Closer Kenley Jansen watched from the bullpen on Monday as Kelly self-immolated. Jansen understood exactly what his manager was doing, and the privileges of his team’s position.
“Yes, we wanted to win that game,” Jansen said. “But there’s a lot of games.”